• Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Genders: What the Romanian Nouns Imply

Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, a professor at the University of San Diego formerly associated with MIT and Stanford, poses a massive question in a 2017 TED Talk: “Does the language we speak shape the way we think?” She maintains it does. Comparative linguistics supports that view: the fact, for instance, that subject-predicate structures differ in English as opposed to Spanish/Romanian, with English always mentioning the subject pronoun which, on the other hand, is almost always omitted in the two Romance languages (because it is implied in the verb ending), suggests that English speakers may have a different way of thinking of agency, accountability and personal responsibility. That was just one example. More, in the talk:

The point is that different language structures mean different ways of thinking. “Language can profoundly shape the way we think”, and so “speakers of different languages think differently”.

Well, one language structure that can yield intriguing insights into how different cultures think of men, women and man-made things is gender. Some languages have but few gender markers (in English, for example, the pronouns “he”/ “she” and the feminine suffix in waitress or actress), while others have a lot (gender-specific pronouns and endings for adjectives and nouns, in Romance languages, or even gender-specific verb forms, in Hebrew).

Grammatical technicalities apart, probably the most fascinating thing about gender in different languages is the relationship between natural gender and grammatical gender. English is almost genderless nowadays, but in the languages that do have grammatical gender, male-sexed beings should, as a rule, be masculine, female-sexed beings – feminine, and inanimate non-sexed things – neuter. That was the case in Latin and it still is, apparently, in present-day German and Slavic languages. Western Romance languages, on the other hand, have shed the neuter gender, and Swedish now uses a common gender for male and female beings plus some inanimates, and the neuter for the remaining inanimates.

And in Romanian? Let’s look at some facts and derive, always with a grain of salt, a few tentative philosophical/ideological conclusions from them.

  • First off, in Romanian grammatical gender applies to all nouns; there are no non-gendered nouns in Romanian – as if we had low tolerance for a-gendered-ness (or even for asexuality?), as if the lack of any gender at all was unsufferable to the Romanian mind...

  • Secondly, Romanian neuter nouns name inanimate things, but not all inanimates are neuter: some are feminine (like masă, “table”), some are masculine (like perete, “wall”) – does that make us prone to animism, as befits, perhaps, a population invaded in the 6th century AD by animistic Slavic tribes whose linguistic influence is actually proven to have consolidated the neuter gender in Romanian?

  • Interestingly, feminine nouns in Romanian include a few specific categories of inanimates: plants, flowers and fruits; countries and islands; moods and states of mind; seasons. Casă (house), masă (table), chiuvetă (sink), maşină de spălat (washing machine) are feminine, but so are also carte (book), abstract notions like frumuseţe/beauty, dreptate/justice, prostie/stupidity, as well as things related to cosmetics (oglindă/mirror, cremă/cream, ojă/nail polish, pensetă/tweezers). And isn’t it a bit of a paradox that to the Romanian mind the feminine encompasses the area of the household (for isn’t it traditionally a woman’s place and responsibility?...) and at the same time highbrow concepts? It is as if we expect of the feminine to embrace it all, chores and philosophical reflection, the mundane and the intellectual, to be totally comprehensive.

  • Equally interestingly, masculine nouns in Romanian include, besides male-sexed beings, categories like trees (brad/fir tree, stejar/oak), months, mountains (Carpaţii/the Carpathians, Alpii/the Alps), numbers, letters/sounds, musical notes and currencies. Whatever implies structure, system, organising units, as well as things symbolising vigour and majestic power seem to pertain to masculinity, in the Romanian mind. The downside for Romanian men? They are expected to perform organisational and technical tasks. Is there furniture to be moved around? A nail to be hammered into a wall? A light bulb to be replaced? “Let the boys do it!” (“Se ocupă băieţii!”) is a very, very common response to that to do list.

  • The Romanian neuter gender, inherited from Latin and consolidated through the Slavic influence, borrowed from Albanian an ambigender structure: it has a masculine form in the singular and a feminine one in the plural. (That goes for household objects like dulap/closet, frigider/fridge, etc. as well as for the names of senses and some natural phenomena like vânt/wind, ger/frost, viscol/blizzard, fulger/lightning). With that feature, our language seems to evince remarkable relaxation about gender ambivalence, a high degree of tolerance for mixed-gender realities (whether animate or inanimate) – to what extent is that reflected in our gender-related social policies and societal practices, or simply in the gender roles in place in our daily lives, one might wonder?...

A final note about some gender-specific endings: they can engender a good laugh. Suggesting a subtle understanding of gender in French, the feminine ending –e is not pronounced, you can only spot it in writing – the feminine, the hidden catch... J In Spanish, on the other hand, it’s downright funny that the feminine ending –a applies to such a macho culture entity like futbolista, while similarly in the glamorous world of opera divas the masculine ending –o features so prominently in soprano. Romanian joins the club, too: the feminine ending –ă cheekily seems to undermine the prestige and authority of males like the popă (priest), the tată (father) and the vodă (ruler). Who can ever truly untangle such implications? Our Romanian language is definitely our food for thought!

International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact romanian@ih.ro. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.

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